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Why be moral?


To: Katherine A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 6 April 2006 10:05

Dear Katherine,

Thank you for your email of 22 March, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

This is a thoughtful piece, which argues the case for 'being moral' in a subtle way.

A friend of mine regularly gets visits from 'Jovos' as he calls them (Jehovah's Witnesses), and always invites them in for tea and a long chat. However, my friend is not the least bit interested in being polite. He subjects his guests to a barrage of philosophical objections designed to make them feel as uncomfortable as possible. He knows that there is little chance of getting them to change their views.

Is this moral?

In Kantian terms, it could be argued that my friend is using 'his' Jovos as means to his own end (enjoyment) while ignoring the fact that they are persons deserving of moral respect (Kantian 'ends in themselves').

This seems to be one of the 'grey areas' of morality which you allude to (and a good reason, I would argue, for being suspicious of Kantian ethics). When people annoy us we feel we have a 'right' to abuse them, to some extent. This is not a moral right, but more like the attitude of 'tit for tat'. Like, for example, when you tell someone who is being objectionable to 'piss off'.

Is it true that non-human animals have evolved to be 'naturally moral'? If so, then this is good news for moral philosophy, because there is every reason to believe that some of this has rubbed off on human animals too.

There is an excellent discussion of this in Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'. Dawkins reports on a computer simulation which was carried out to test the 'natural altruism' theory. It turns out that in a group of animals where the majority possess a gene for altruism, the selfish minority who do not possess this gene will quickly take advantage, increasing their survival chances at the expense of the altruists. However, both the altruists and the selfish lose out to the 'grudgers', who are prepared to do a favour provided that the one who is done a favour to responds appropriately when it is 'their turn'. If not, then the favour is not offered on a second or subsequent occasion.

Rachel Browne in her Fellowship dissertation, 'Ethical Relations' (downloadable from the Pathways Essay Archive mounts a powerful case for seeing moral motivation as 'natural' not in the evolutionary sense but rather as an essential part of human well being. This is the 'norm' for human relations. Deviation from this norm implies (in some sense) a psychological problem or defect.

Evidence for this comes from consideration of what is involved in 'becoming a person'. This is a cultural rather than a biological phenomenon (therefore not vulnerable to Dawkins' objection). To be a person is to be someone who has developed in relation to an 'other', a parent or carer, a process which essentially involves communication and the acquisition of a basic moral vocabulary which is not contingent on the morals of any particular society but more fundamental, a sense of basic 'respect for the other'.

Rachel shares my interest in the continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who emphasizes the 'otherness of the other' as the basis for ethical relations, by contrast with philosophies which attempt to reduce myself and the other to 'two of the same'.

My own approach would be more rational. I am looking for a purely logical argument which would establish the incoherence of the 'amoral' position. The idea is that the individual who does not recognize the claims of others (at all) is deprived of the means for conceiving of a world which is something more than 'my world'. In other words, the true amoralist is necessarily a 'solipsist'. In the 'world' of the solipsist there is no such thing as 'truth', no gap between how things seem to me and 'reality'. It is, in effect, a mere dream world.

I have an article on this theme, 'In pursuit of the amoralist' on the Wood Paths web site

Of course, a real life 'amoralist' (or psychopath) would not be convinced by this argument, or any argument. The point is simply to show that morality has a logical or metaphysical basis in the very idea of a 'real world' as such.

I agree that Zimbabwe is a strong case for preferring morality to lack of morality. But this is not the same as giving an argument for being moral. What it would be argument for is agreeing on conventional rules of behaviour, based purely on self-interest. The point, however, is that people in Zimbabwe are no different from people elsewhere. What the events in Zimbabwe show is that our 'normal' state of moral awareness is a fragile thing which can, under certain circumstances, wither away or be destroyed.

All the best,